Questions on Shakespeare’s Histories
Shakespeare, William. King Richard III. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 361-450).
1. In Act 1, Scene 1, Richard starts the play off with his remarkable “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy (speech delivered alone, not to other characters). How does he represent himself in this passage, and indeed throughout the first scene? How does he characterize his own nature and ambitions, the times in which he lives, and his powerful relatives?
2. In Act 1, Scene 2, Richard woos, and apparently wins, the unfortunate Anne Neville, who mourns Henry VI and her betrothed, his son Edward Prince of Wales. Richard is complicit in their deaths. How does he go about this delicate task? What accounts for his success?
3. In Act 1, Scene 3, The royal dysfunctional family gather over a meal to bicker. What are some of their complaints? In particular, how does Queen Margaret (Henry VI’s widow) reproach Queen Elizabeth and Richard, and what warning does she make to Buckingham about Richard? How does Richard represent himself to others in this scene?
4. In Act 1, Scene 4, Clarence, about to be murdered by a pair of thugs on the order of Richard, offers a starkly beautiful rendition of his uneasy dream — what happens in that dream? What does it reveal to him? To us? To what extent does this scene generate real sympathy for Clarence, and to what degree do his remarks more generally suggest his complicity in the less savory side of power politics?
5. In Act 2, Scene 1, what figure does the soon-to-be-departed Edward IV, Richard’s Yorkist elder brother, cut in this scene: namely, what hopes does he express for the future of his dynasty? What does he expect of his family? And to what self-analysis is he driven when Richard deftly undercuts him with the news that Clarence is dead?
6. In Act 2, Scene 2, what quality breaks the unitary effect of Elizabeth, Clarence’s children, and the Duchess of York’s lamentation over Clarence and Edward IV? Still, to what extent is the grief expressed in this scene genuine, and the scene effective as an expression of sorrow?
7. In Act 2, Scene 3, three citizens air their thoughts and anxieties about Edward’s death and what is to come. What does this chorus of citizens apparently think of the great events and noble “actors” to which they are partly witness? What are their fears and expectations?
8. In Act 2, Scene 4, this scene in which Queen Elizabeth foresees the destruction of her family (the Woodvilles) rehearses Tudor propaganda about Richard’s ill-favored appearance and wicked ways from childhood onwards. Do some brief research on the Internet and set down what you can find about Richard’s character as modern historians represent it, or as it appears on websites devoted to Richard III. What opinion seems to prevail today?
9. In Act 3, Scene 1, describe the exchange between the young Prince Edward (Edward IV’s heir), his little brother York, and Richard: how does Edward size up his current situation? Why do Edward’s observations in particular disturb Richard, as we may discern after the boys have been sent to the Tower?
10. In Act 3, Scenes 2-3, how does this scene set Hastings up for what is to come in scene 4 (his execution) — what does he think of his prospects at this point? How does he react to the undoing of his own enemies? What does he say in response to the Messenger who tells him about Stanley’s ominous dream?
11. In Act 3, Scene 4, in a meeting to discuss matters pertaining to the coronation, what piece of stagecraft does Richard contrive to get rid of the troublesome Hastings? What is the further point of this brief drama — what does Richard accomplish thereby?
12. In Act 3, Scene 5, how do Richard and Buckingham dupe the Mayor of London into accepting their version of events surrounding Hastings and his sudden execution? Shakespeare makes it clear that the Mayor accepts their claims — why, in your view, might such a public figure accept what seems to us such a spectacle and justification for judicial murder?
13. In Act 3, Scene 6, the Scrivener enters with an indictment of the condemned Hastings. How does this ordinary fellow sum analyze the nature of the great events taking place in his midst? What lies at the root of the problem, as far as he is concerned?
14. In Act 3, Scene 7, analyze the “theatrics” of the episode in which Buckingham and Richard make a show of the latter’s alleged reluctance to accept the crown. What reasons does Buckingham employ to advance the cause of Richard’s acceptance, and what reasons does Richard give in feigning to decline it? What logic or assumptions about power and about the audience underlie this piece of political theater?
15. In Act 4, Scene 1, three of the play’s women (Elizabeth, Anne, and the Duchess of York) gather to consider their plight. How does Anne, once betrothed to Edward IV’s heir, explain her acceptance of Richard’s offer of marriage? Does her explanation seem credible? Explain.
16. Act 4, Scenes 2-3, in these scenes, Richard moves with great speed to consolidate his power, commanding the murder of the young princes in the Tower of London and taking other vital actions. How do Buckingham and Tyrrel, respectively, react to Richard’s demands to do away with the princes? What accounts for the difference in their reactions? How does Richard take Buckingham’s response?
17. Act 4, Scenes 4-5, what role does Queen Margaret play in her exchange with Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess (Richard’s mother)? What accusations do these three level at one another, and to what extent is there any understanding between them about their sufferings or their position as women in a world of dynastic intrigue?
18. Act 4, Scene 4, what logic and rhetorical emphasis does Richard employ to try to win over Queen Elizabeth to his desire for the hand of her daughter (also named Elizabeth) in marriage? How does she respond to him?
19. Throughout Act 5, contrast the language and actions of Richard and Richmond: what state of mind does each appear to be in on the eve of their fateful meeting? How do they justify the upcoming battle to their followers?
20. Act 5, Scenes 3-5, how does Richard conduct himself during the Battle of Bosworth, up to and including his death? In what sense is his comportment at the end characteristic of his life? What future does Richmond (soon to become Henry VII) lay out as the play concludes?
Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake